It was the first inning of a fall game. We were far from evenly matched, which has been a bit uncomfortable all season long. We’re expecting to be a majors team next season, and the teams in our fall league were all AA. The results reflected it.
It wasn’t all bad. It gave us the opportunity to pitch kids who didn’t normally pitch. We played kids at positions that they may not normally play. We kept it loose while balancing with good intensity.
The fact that this first inning was getting out of hand was no big surprise. We were hitting rockets. The few times we hit catchable balls, the fielders weren’t making the plays.
This wasn’t new. But there was something that bothered me.
After an outfielder failed to throw a ball he fielded promptly, resulting in an extra base, the coach shouted at him and then sent a replacement into his spot.
A few plays later, an outfielder didn’t catch a ball. Same reaction. A bench player trotted onto the field, replacing that player.
He embarrassed these players to make a point.
This wasn’t a matter of kids being lazy, not focusing, or underperforming. The coach, I’m sure, would disagree. Which is why these moves were made.
But the results weren’t all that surprising. They were playing at the level that was expected (regardless of what the coach may say). They were being intimidated and punished for playing at their ability level.
Does this approach help? Did the players who were benched during the inning learn an important lesson? Would they now be less likely to make the same mistakes next time? And would the replacements be likely to perform at a higher level?
I think you know what I think. It doesn’t help. This coach was using fear and intimidation to get results from kids who were simply performing the way that was expected based on their training and ability level.
I’ve coached for more than a dozen years, and I don’t believe I’ve ever replaced a player in the field during an inning for making a mistake. But I may have had more of that coaching style in me at one time than I’d like to admit. I eventually realized it wasn’t effective.
Coaching Through Fear and Intimidation
What do I mean?
Coaching through fear and intimidation means the coach spends much of his time screaming at his players. Not cheering them on. Ridiculing them. Punishing them for mistakes.
He’s a bad communicator. He’s unable to get his point across. The performance of his players is embarrassing him. He’s angry.
You must know that you made a mistake. Everyone must know that you made a mistake. Everyone must know that the coach taught you differently. It can’t be the coach’s fault.
You won’t make that mistake again. If you do, you’re going to get yelled at. You’re going to be removed from the game. You’re going to be embarrassed in front of your teammates and family.
You may not know exactly how you need to do things differently. You just know that you have to execute next time. Try harder to field the ball, make a good throw, or get a hit.
It Doesn’t Work
Look, I realize that this is still a popular approach. Some coaches continue to operate using fear and intimidation as a motivator. Some parents swear by it. And some kids even thrive off of it.
But it doesn’t need to be your approach.
It’s partly a different era regarding what is acceptable and what isn’t. For me, it’s mostly understanding the most productive way to get the most out of my players.
This isn’t about holding hands, singing Kumbayah, and giving everyone a trophy. I’m as competitive as the next loud, angry coach. I expect as much if not more out of my players as anyone else.
There are different approaches to teaching baseball and life while getting the most out of your players. My approach has certainly evolved over the years.
I’ve always been intense and competitive. But in the early days, I was much louder. Much harsher. I’d focus much more on the negative than the positive.
I guarantee some players would say that they feared me at times. Or that I attempted to intimidate them to get results.
Those teams succeeded. I didn’t understand it then, but it wasn’t the intimidation that got results. It was the coaching. Helping them understand the game. Helping them love the game. Teaching them something new.
The theatrics weren’t what led to the results. If anything, they limited the results that we got.
The Performance is a Reflection of Your Instruction
Most anger and fear-based coaching come from a place of vulnerability. These coaches are embarrassed. They are embarrassed because, deep down, they know the truth.
The team is playing this way because that’s how they have been trained, prepared, or taught.
Coaches don’t want to admit that. But it’s true.
Your players won’t be perfect. They will make mistakes. But the rate at which they make mistakes is a reflection of their training. Their performance is a direct reflection of you.
Look, I know there are many factors involved. You get kids at different experience levels. Some learn faster than others. But ultimately, anger is the wrong reaction. They’re doing what you taught them to do.
That doesn’t mean they’ll always play at the level they’re capable of playing. But, to a point, they are what they are and that’s a reflection of you.
Good and bad.
Balancing Positivity and Negativity
Baseball is a mental game. Confidence is extremely important. You can’t ignore the negative, but there needs to be a good balance.
A player did something wrong. You could yell at them, but guess what? They know they did something wrong because they got a bad result.
What could they have done differently? Did they do what has been taught? Why didn’t they do it correctly? Help them through the thought process.
When teaching, the person being taught will be much more receptive if you balance negative with positive.
“I really like when you did [this]. It showed you were [focused, paying attention, well prepared].”
“But then you did [this]. What was your thought process behind that?”
After they explain what they were thinking, help them understand the proper approach. If possible, allow them to discover the proper approach themselves.
After a difficult game, always try to find some positive things to highlight. No matter what you think, there is something that was done well. Start there. Then cover the negative.
Positivity Without Purpose
You can actually be too positive. We’ve all seen it.
The batter swings at a pitch over his head and misses.
Third base coach claps his hands. “Good swing, Billy!”
No. No, it wasn’t.
If you’re always positive and never point out things that need to be corrected, or if you say something was correct that wasn’t, you are only reinforcing bad habits. And the positivity all becomes noise.
You can correct players without intimidation, but they need to be corrected. Sometimes it’s just a matter of a look. Or maybe it’s simply reinforcing what we want.
Instead of saying it was a good swing when you know it wasn’t, provide basic correction.
First wait to get the player’s reaction. He probably knows that it was a bad pitch. When you realize you’re on the same page, say, “Okay. You’re going to be okay. Turn the page. Deep breath. Nothing over your hands, right?”
And move on.
How to Treat Physical Errors
Physical errors are things like…
- Misplaying a ball in the field
- Making a bad throw
- Striking out
- Having a bad swing or approach at the plate
- Walking batters
- Making a bad pitch
These are physical errors. In each case, the player didn’t want this result. They wanted to make the play. They wanted to make a good throw. They wanted to get a hit. They wanted to make a good pitch.
But they didn’t.
It wasn’t due to being lazy or lack of effort. So, why be angry?
Physical errors underscore what we need to work on. Players need reps. They need lots of reps, but positive reps doing things the right way.
When you see your players making physical errors, write those things down. That’s what you need to work on more in practice.
Earning Playing Time
I don’t recommend coaching through fear and intimidation. Balance positivity with negativity. Don’t punish physical errors.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t encourage a competitive environment.
If Billy is more productive than Jimmy at shortstop, then Billy should play more there.
If Franky is a better hitter than Teddy, then Franky should hit higher in the lineup.
If Johnny is a better overall player than Al (I’m running out of names), then Johnny should get more playing time.
Don’t think this “softer” approach is any less competitive. It doesn’t mean everyone plays whatever positions they want. It doesn’t mean that playing time is shared equally regardless of ability, performance, and preparation.
This is simply establishing a more productive approach to teaching and correction. An approach your players are more likely to receive positively and improve.
Expectations, Rules, and Structure
You should still have rules. You should still establish clear expectations for behavior. You should still coach responsibilities and the mental side of the game.
Continue to be firm. Discipline will still be necessary.
But how we communicate matters.
Focus on Fun
Baseball is a game. It’s not life or death. Stop treating it that way.
If you want your players to hate baseball, keep yelling at them and intimidating them.
If you want your players to burn out, keep embarrassing them.
But, one day they will leave your team. Will they love the game more than they did when they arrived? Will they be more knowledgable? What kind of memories will they have of the team? Of you?
These are the things that we impact. And how we impact these young men is influenced by our style of coaching.
You have a choice.
What are your experiences with coaching through fear and intimidation? What approaches do you use instead?
Let me know in the comments below!